In November, I finally made it along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do as long as I can remember, I even have a notepad stored somewhere in my parents loft with a South America travel route planned, all based around doing the trek.
It was four days of laughter, hard hiking, sky splitting thunderstorms and scenery so magical there are little words to describe it. The boyf, Gareth, and I joined a trek with Valencia Travel Cusco, with guides Ed and Javier, who were, by far, the best guides I’ve ever had the fortune to spend time with. They were not only full to the brim with knowledge, but were fun, personable, realistic and hysterical.
They both showed a deep love for our surroundings, the hike and the nature that is trying to slowing claim back the Andes. Well done boys, can you come with us on all of our hikes please?
Valencia Travel are a locally owned company who provide a professional service, English speaking guides and amazing conditions and benefits for their porters. When we arrived in Cusco, we were offered two free nights at a three-star hotel, a private tour of Cusco and the surrounding archaeological sites and a group tour of the Sacred Valley, along with a pre-trip brief the night before departure.
Armed with down sleeping bags, Thermarests and a bag of coca leaves, we set off before dawn in a van to the start of the Inca Trail. We stopped for breakfast on route and then precariously trundled down a track just wide enough for our little van before unloading ourselves and our kit onto the trail!
Day 1 was, apparently, the easy day. A training day to break us in, loosen up the legs and let the group gel together under the intense Inca sun. The heat on day one was unbearable, but it didn’t matter, the views were almost so good we forgot how much sweat was running off us. We walked under huge mountains covered in lush green trees that somehow failed to give us any shade in the unrelenting sun.
Throughout the day, we stopped off to learn about plants, animals and various Inca sites dotted along the trail. Ed was bursting with info, and was evident that he loved teaching his groups about Inca life, from what helped the get as high as a kite to how agriculture was possible on steep mountain slopes.
As we hiked, the enormity of what was ahead of us started to dawn, “This is the easy day?” was heard echoing through the group as our thighs began to burn and lungs threatened to burst. But that was nothing, the porters, or guapos as Ed had us call them, sped past us with everything a group of 10 people could possibly need for five days on a mountain. Tents, toilets, food, cooking stuff, the kitchen sink. And they always left after us and arrived before us. Some serious respect.
Our first campsite, which was at the top of the first of many steep ascents to come, was dwarfed by mountain tops and engulfed by freezing cloud. This night, we were also introduced to all of the guapos who would be looking after us for the trip, a lovely little insight into the men who we would watch work tirelessly for the next few days, always with a smile on their faces.
Day 2 started with a 5.30am wakeup – with coca tea brought to our tent by our amazing guapos. We knew that today was going to be hard, with two mountains to climb up and stumble back down again, so we stocked up on breakfast, packed up and headed straight up the hill.
The first mountain pass we had to summit, called Dead Woman’s Pass because the mountains looked like a huge woman lying down, was a slow, sweaty trudge through thick cloud up to 4215 metres above sea level.
We started today as a good group walking up through the cloud forest, but Gareth and I soon found our pace and carried on by ourselves with fewer stops. Sometimes I find it’s much better to just keep walking through the pain. We reached Dead Woman’s Pass in thick fog and came over the summit to be greeted by glacial winds – definitely worth packing every thick layer I could find at home, even just for these 20 minutes!
We were met at the top with tea and a cheese sandwich as well as two other couples who made it up before us. We found a spot out of the wind and waited for the rest of our group to reach the top – with cheers and a sexy llama dance or two, everyone summited! But it wasn’t over yet – we now had to head down steep, slippery Inca steps to find our lunch at the bottom of the mountain.
We reached the bottom, gorged on some food and took half an hour to let lunch settle and to regain some strength in our legs. We were soon off, up and up and up and although the second mountain of the day was a much shorter hike, it was much more difficult with steeper, higher steps that were not made for little legs!
As we were hiking this second mountain, the clouds swept views in and out of sight, keeping the Andes around us a surprise. We climbed higher and higher and the weather worsened and worsened. We heard thunder overhead and Dead Woman’s Pass disappeared from view under full-bellied clouds. It’s safe to say that being on the top of a mountain is the last place in the world you want to be throughout a soul-shaking, sky-splitting thunderstorm, but we didn’t mind. We laughed and swiftly mourned the death of caring – when else would we be able to experience the heartbeat of the Andes?
Through vertical descents and lots of laughs along the way, we made it down to a campsite surrounded by glaciers above the clouds.
Day 3 started with an easy undulating hike across green mountains, through Inca tunnels and up to summits with unbelievable views of the Urubamba River and the back of Machu Picchu Mountain. Spirits were high today and the hike was filled with a helluva lot of laughter and chat. The jungle we descended through during today was beautiful, with golden butterflies glowing in the occasional sunlight, hummingbirds flitting around, colour popping flowers and even the odd disgruntled llama.
Our afternoon was spent moseying around Inca sites near our campsite and preparing ourselves for the 3am wakeup for Machu Picchu the next day. We rested, we read, some of us floundered in disappointing waterfalls. Evening came and we all gathered in the mess tent for Happy Hour (popcorn, biscuits, tea, peanut butter, Milo – all things sweet, rarely boozy) to laugh about the day and talk about the next.
Dinners throughout our trek were always incredible – the mind boggles at how such great food made it out of a tent on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. On this night, our chef surprised us even more by bringing out a birthday cake for Jodi, who’s birthday it was the next day. And it was delicious. And chef didn’t know there was a birthday until we were already half way through the hike. Mind. Blown.
The next morning, the final morning, we woke in the middle of the night to have breakfast at 3.30am and be on the road and to the final checkpoint along the trail by 4am. Here we needed to wait until 5.30am for the gates to open – the reason we had to get up so early is because the guapos are only allowed to get on the first train back to Cusco, which is at 5am from Aguas Calientes. If they miss this, they have to walk!
As soon as the sun started to rise, the gates opened, we were through and seriously upped the pace in comparison to the last three days; the guys who were climbing Wayna Picchu had to be at the gate between 10 and 11 to get to the top, and after 11 nobody is permitted to climb the mountain. Bureaucracy, eh?
We arrived at the Sun Gate sweaty, tired and with Machu Picchu hidden behind thick morning cloud. Luckily, the cloud started to lift as we began our descent into the main citadel. Machu Picchu was playing a game of peekaboo with us, showing us just glimpses at a time. But I’ll tell you how MP looks – exactly as it does in the pictures! It’s one of those moments that doesn’t quite seem real, but it is, I promise.
We eagerly dumped our bags and then followed Ed around site whilst he gave us a two hour tour of the archaeological site. He showed us the different rooms and sections of the site and linked together stories he’d told us along the Inca Trail. He showed us how the Incas told the time, seasons, read the stars and worshipped. Ed’s insight and knowledge of the site was beyond impressive and it was clear that he loves every second of his job as a tour guide for Valencia.
After the tour, we were given a few hours to wander before meeting in Aguas Calientes for a well deserved beer and steak. However, we felt a little crowded at Machu Picchu – due to spending time with just 10 people for the past four days and then being surrounded by people who had the luxury of washing that day – so we decided to take an hour to just sit on a terrace and soak it all in away from the crowds. It was perfect.
Overall, we had an amazing time on this trip which far exceeded any expectations I had before we began. So, here’s the quick DL on our experience of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
– The Company I can’t get across how wonderful Valencia Travel were to travel with. From the off they were professional and attentive, from communications way back in April to the effort put into the food that comes out of a tent. Although Valencia do come across as a little pricier than other companies, they’re worth every penny. With Valencia you are guaranteed delicious food, great service, warm camping gear if you don’t take your own and a bloody brilliant guide. They are also a local company, who constantly puts money back into the local economy – from food sourced from fish farms on the trek to guapos from the area. Our guides, Ed and Javier, were also two amazing men who I couldn’t imagine doing the trek without. They were educated and knew everything we asked them, whether it be about the names of butterflies or about Incan history.
– The trek I went into the Inca Trail with expectations that weren’t exactly high – I mean, everyone does it, right? Wrong. The Inca Trail felt like a sort of pilgrimage, and we hardly saw anyone save our group, guapos and occasionally switchbacked with another group. The trail gives you Inca sites to explore by yourself and a real feeling of being alone in the Andes – there were some times when I even had a whole trail to myself. Trust the masses on this one, the Inca Trail rocks.
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